Mush only made eight cents profit selling his papes that day. On the way back from work, he found a worn leather wallet lying in a rain puddle, filled to the brim with street sludge and five dollars in soggy bills. There was a business card inside of it too, but the ink had run so that Mush couldn’t make out what it was for, no matter how hard he squinted.
“Look at this,” Mush handed the card to Blink. Thunder cracked overhead, and the wind blew the leaves off the trees. Blink threw the card over his shoulder with a hoot of laughter, and slung his arms around Mush’s neck. The business card tumbled away, and though Mush tried to nab it before it was claimed by the wind, Blink pulled him back with a shake and a squeeze, until suddenly the two of them were face to face hugging each other and the card was forgotten.
“You’re rich, Mush! Filthy stinkin’ rich! Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy! Come on, put that in your pocket before some jerk sees you and snatches it up.” Blink pulled back to hold Mush at arm’s length, beaming, and laughed again. He looked just about ready to dance a jig.
“You really think I should keep it?” Mush stared down at the wallet doubtfully. The rain, which had been plummeting down all day, didn’t seem to be falling in drops so much as a great solid sheet.
“‘Course I do! No better home for a wad of cash than in your pockets, and I’ll tell you what, I’ve always thought so. Let’s get our asses somewhere warm.” Blink grinned. He slid the wallet into Mush’s pocket, patted the spot, and started steering him away from the awning where they stood. “You’re liable to catch cold standing out here. In fact, we both is.”
“I don’t know 'bout that, Kid. I never get sick. Then again, I never found any money on the ground before, neither. Hey, I bet whoever lost this is out looking for it. He’s probably cold too, and scared.”
“Nah. Only rich folks could lose money like that. 'Sides, what’re you gonna do, put an ad in the paper? That costs money, and we don’t got any other then this.”
“I guess,” Mush answered slowly. “Guess I’m hungry too.” He’d only eaten a piece of bread that day. Headlines were bad as of late, and so was the weather. Earlier that afternoon, Blink had joked that the rumbling in Mush’s belly was as loud as the thunder that kept ripping through the sky, and chased him down, threatening to buy him expensive delicacies ranging from bananas to current buns.
Blink clapped him on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit.” Blink’s smile warmed Mush the way nothing else could, even the feast that they might soon be able to afford. Mush was beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, it was okay to feel giddy about his find.
“Let’s not order right away. I wanna spend time perusing the menu,” said Blink. They’d chosen to go to the tavern, not because they were eager to get drunk, but because the place had food and a fireplace. It was familiar as well. Mush had read the menu a thousand times over, even the page at the back, all filled up with nice meals he’d only been able to dream of affording.
“That’s alright. You have to choose for me. I’m… Don’t know what to say I am! Would you say I’m overwhelmed, Kid? That might be it. Suppose it is. I’m overwhelmed.”
“Adorable is what you is. And cute.” Blink leaned back abruptly and turned all of his attention to the menu.
Before long they’d ordered two plates of corned beef, roasted potatoes, mashed potatoes, stewed potatoes, coffee, hot chocolate, wine, and potato soup. The waiter raised an eyebrow at the order, but Blink slapped a dollar down on the table, and the resounding thud of cold hard cash sent the waiter scuttling off to the kitchen.
“I bet this is how Queen Victoria feels, every day of every week,” Blink announced.
Mush was pretty sure that no queen had ever sat around in shoes that squelched and a drooping hat while waiting for her supper, but he didn’t argue. “Give me your coat,” he said instead, and he lay both his coat and Blink’s out on chairs close to the fire, where they’d have hope of drying.
Soon Mush was enjoying his meal, the fire, and the company, with all the euphoria that went with an unexpectedly nice surprise.
It was only as he and Blink were leaving the bar that the guilt of paying his bill with somebody else’s money began to weigh on Mush, just as heavy as the vast amount of food in his overstuffed tummy.
Ten o'clock came. Eleven o'clock came. Twelve o'clock came, and Mush Meyers couldn’t sleep. It might have been indigestion, but he knew in his heart that it was something more. He climbed down from his bunk, got dressed, and snuck as quietly as he could to the locker where he kept his things. He took out the wallet, and remembering the money he’d already spent, quickly started pocketing all the change he had, leaving only what he needed to buy his stake in tomorrow’s papes.
It wasn’t enough.
Mush sighed, and ran his hand up through his curly hair. He was short about fifteen cents of what he’d taken. He had a collection though, of picture postcards that he bought three for a nickel a few times a week when the headlines were good. There had to be fifteen cents worth of those, if not more. He put them in his pocket too, resisting the urge to flip through them, as it would only make him sad.
It was too bad that Mush had spent a chunk of the money wastefully and would have to pay the consequences. Even so, the rain had stopped, and Mush had had plenty of time to consider what to do with it. That was enough to make him feel a little better, particularly because he was sure that his plan was a good one.
Mush didn’t closely know a lot of folks who understood money, especially not adults. Kloppman was good with pennies and nickels, but in all his days Mush had never seen him handle anything else. Then there were the police, who some would say were the right people to hand a missing wallet over to, but the truth was that they always made Mush feel awkward and jittery.
No, Kloppman and the police weren’t the answers to Mush’s dilemma, of that much Mush was certain. Bryan Denton was the man he was looking for. It was perfect. The reporter obviously had heaps of money and knew what to do with the stuff. More importantly, he had the power of the press to back him up. Most importantly, Mush knew where he lived, and it wasn’t a long walk.
If Denton was happy to see Mush when he opened his door to him at half past midnight, he didn’t show it. The reporter’s hair was a mess, and he wore a white dressing gown and no shoes. What really struck Mush, though, was that his bowtie was missing. He’d never imagined Denton without it.
The reporter rubbed his eyes, then stretched his hand down the skin on his face like he was trying to wake himself up.
“What are you doing here,” he asked, then he shook his head. “Is everything alright? Come on in.”
“Thanks. Hey Mr. Denton, I got a news story for you. I’m doing fine, by the way. Nothing to worry about.”
Denton had a lot of things in his house, ranging from photographs, to vases, to a great big telescope. It was all so distracting that it took Mush a few seconds to stop staring, and remember to tip his hat.
“A news story,” Denton repeated slowly. “Do you know what time it is, Mush? Never mind. What is it?”
“Have you got a pen and paper? You need that to write a news story, don’t you?”
“Give me a minute. You can sit down. There’s, um, a couch over there. Make yourself comfortable.
Mush had a long time to be comfortable on Denton’s couch, which was very soft. When the reporter came back he’d dressed and combed his hair, though he was still bleary eyed and tieless.
"What’s this story of yours that couldn’t wait until morning?” Denton put his pen to paper and waited.
“Well, you see, today while I was out peddling papes with Blink - Say, do you remember my pal Kid Blink?”
Denton nodded encouragingly, “I remember all of you.”
“Great! Guess we'se hard to forget, ain’t we?”
“To say the least.”
“So anyhow, it was raining real bad, just like it’s been doin’ all week, and the ink was melting off the papers. It’s still all over my hands and arms, see? Even though I cleaned up as best I could when I got back to the lodge tonight.”
Denton looked at Mush’s arm, and nodded. He seemed like he was trying not to smile. “And you want me to write about the quality of ink used in the papers? You do realize that any complaints will violate the terms of your strike agreement and…”
“Oh no, I ain’t complaining! In fact, I think it must be good quality ink to stick to me like that. Anything else would’ve washed off. It only runs once, but then it hangs on like cement. I’d say that’s pretty phenomenal. Anyways, look at this wallet I found on the ground.” Mush thrust out his hand, and gave the grimy wallet over to Denton, who made a face, then examined it with due gravity.
“Three dollars and sixty cents,” Denton said, raising his eyebrows at Mush. Probably he wasn’t trying to make Mush feel guilty for the money he’d taken out of it earlier that day, but Mush squirmed just the same.
“There’s more,” he said, rooting through his pockets, and then pouring out a fistful of pennies onto Denton’s coffee table.
“Isn’t that your money, Mush?”
“Yeah! When Blink and me found the wallet, we was excited, see…”
“And hungry,” Denton guessed. He was busy turning the wallet over in his hands, so maybe he didn’t see Mush’s nod. “Cold too, I imagine, what with the weather. How are things at the lodging house, lately?”
“Alright. Can’t complain.”
“You aren’t the complaining type,” Denton observed. “That’s admirable. But things are scarce as of late, wouldn’t you say?”
“Well, the weather’s bad, and the headlines are lousy, but we’re used to it this time of year. That’s just how it goes sometimes, you know?”
Denton’s nod was firm and solemn. “Do you want to tell me your intentions in bringing this wallet to me?”
“To get it back to whoever it was dropped it. That’s just the right thing to do, and I should’ve done it first off.”
“I don’t think anybody will blame you for waiting, given your circumstances,” Denton said. He was already scribbling away at his notepad. “I fact, I can guarantee it. Everybody will understand exactly why you waited. Do you want to tell me what you bought with the money you are replacing?”
“… A bunch of potatoes,” Mush admitted. It seemed silly now that he said it out loud. “Some meat too, but mostly potatoes. For me and my friend, Blink. He’s the guy I found it with.”
“Potatoes. You like potatoes?”
“They’s alright. Blink likes 'em best. I’m more a carrot man myself, but there’s nothing wrong with potatoes. Can’t say I ever met a food I didn’t like.”
Denton chuckled. “Right. Well, it’s clear enough that you aren’t keeping this money, but if you had come by it fair and square, what do you think you’d do with it?”
Mush looked down at his feet, and Denton followed his gaze. “Shoes I reckon,” he said. The pair that he’d had the last three years were in even worse shape than when he’d met first Denton during the newsies strike, and he was growing, besides. The toes pinched like the dickens, and he was beginning to think of the holes as almost a mercy - at least they gave his feet room to breath.
“Are you sure you don’t want to just keep the wallet?” Denton asked.
“Nah. I just wanna do the right thing.” Quickly Mush reached into his pocket again, and pulled out his postcard collection. “There’s a little money that I couldn’t make up. These should cover it. If whoever lost the wallet don’t like 'em, just have him contact me, and I’ll work at paying him back in cash.”
Denton took the postcards, and flipped through them. Mush looked down. He knew the pictures well. There was a cat in trousers and pink suspenders, a bunch of dinosaur bones from the museum, three ships on the ocean, and a little dark skinned girl with a nose just like Mush’s, who he liked to imagine might have been his mother as a kid.
“I think you should keep these,” Denton said. Usually Denton looked so smart that it made Mush’s head spin, but right now he looked gentle.
Mush shook his head. “I ain’t a thief,” he said. “I spent some fellow’s money, so he gets something of mine. Fair’s fair.”
Denton was having none of it. He pressed the postcards back into Mush’s hand. “How about this,” he suggested. “I’ll put in whatever’s missing…”
“And I can pay you back as I make the money?”
“If that makes you feel better, sure.”
Mush nodded, and gathered up his postcards. “Don’t forget to say what the wallet looks like. It’s brown, right? Light brown, not dark brown. Medium light brown maybe, with a crease in one of the corners. Make sure to say that real clearly.”
“Will do.” Denton stood up, and Mush followed his lead. He supposed that meant that their interview was over. Denton shook Mush’s hand firmly. “Look for the article in this Thursday’s edition of the Sun. Human interest section,”.
With that promise, Mush was gone. Denton’s clock said it was two in the morning, after all, and Mush only had a couple of hours left before he had to start work.
Blink was angry when he found out what Mush had done.
“Only 'cause you shouldn’t’ve gave Denton all of the money you earned,” he explained, after several hours of looking so sour that Mush couldn’t enjoy the sudden change in the weather. “Who’s to say he won’t take it all for himself? Anyone that rich has got to have some…what do you call 'em? Some unsavory dealings going on somewheres. I’d say stealing from newsboys is pretty damned unsavory, wouldn’t you? Even Swifty doesn’t do that.”
“I don’t know,” was all Mush said in answer. Blink insisted on paying his half of the money that Mush had given Denton, and Mush let him, just because he was broke enough to be worried. Blink was a lot calmer after that.
By the day that Mush’s article came out, however, Blink was so excited that he bought two copies, and kept trying to peak at them throughout the work day. Mush wouldn’t let him do it. He wanted to wait until he was back at the lodge and free for the evening, to see his name in print, that way he’d have time to read the article slowly and enjoy it.
They ended up sitting on Snipeshooter’s bed at the lodging house, with Jack, David, Boots and Racetrack for company.
“Whenever they writes about poor people in the papes, the way the reporters have us talking makes me dizzy,” Mush admitted. He was leaning against Blink’s side, watching the paper that Blink had spread out in his lap.
“I wondah if sum'bys faddah oh muddah lawst dis dough! I tawt I beddah retoin it to 'em,” Boots read slowly, and with great care and deliberation.
“That’s atrocious,” said David. “You don’t talk like that. Nobody does.”
“Says here you’re an angel with a dirty face,” Racetrack said. “What d'you have to say to that, huh Cupid?” He nudged Mush and then Blink in the ribs.
“Just that I’m a person, and I wash my face every day.”
“Well I for one think you’re plenty angelic,” said Blink.
“Maybe not dirty,” Jack amended. “Except for your feet and underarms, but nobody’s perfect.”
“Denton knows what he’s doing.” David was scanning the last few sentences of the article. “He ends with a plea for people who have means to donate to the newsboy’s lodging house on Duane Street. I think you’re going to come out on top of this.”
Two weeks later, Mush found out what David meant. It was early in the morning, and Kloppman pulled Mush out of the line of newsboys barreling down the stairs as he counted them.
“You know what this is,” Kloppman asked, laying a line of neat five dollar bills on the desk of his office for Mush to examine.
Kloppman clicked his teeth, bald head shaking, “Do you have any arithmetic, boy?”
Mush scratched his ear. He didn’t even know what arithmetic was.
“Five,” Kloppman sad encouragingly. “Ten… fifteen…It’s same as counting nickels.”
Mush nodded, understanding what the old man wanted him to do. It took Mush a bit longer than it had Kloppman, but soon Mush had the sum of money figured out. “You have forty-five dollars! That’s great, Mr. K! Good for you.”
“Zero dollars,” Kloppman clarified. He shook his head, and wrote out the number right in his log book. “Zero dollars for me. The lodging house has new sheets for every bed, our medical funds for the year have thirteen dollars to spare, and you have six dollars, my boy.”
“Five dollars to replace the five you found,” Kloppman explained. “And one dollar in… Let’s call it interest, hey?”
“It sure is interesting,” Mush admitted. He was already thinking of what he might do with it, even as Kloppman counted out a mixture of bills and change to hand over to him. “Did the guy get his wallet back, then?” Mush asked.
“Was a lady, and she did. Ten dollars of this is from her father. The rest is from people who read that article you got written.”
Mush was grinning all over his face. He didn’t know what to say. He was rich, and this time it wasn’t through dishonesty or subterfuge. He could do anything he wanted now!
“One thing,” Kloppman suggested. “Don’t spend it all on potatoes this time. Six dollars won’t carry you through life, mind, but it ain’t half bad for a start.”
“It ain’t half bad for a start,” Mush repeated happily. “Thanks Mr. K!” Mush pocketed the money, and ran off to tell Blink. Maybe dinner wouldn’t be on him this time, but he bet if the two of them talked about it together, they could find a way for a whole six dollars to help them out in the future.